Rich Foster is a former president of USA Water Polo and sports ethics professor at Cal State Long Beach who will be inducted into the Long Beach City College “Hall of Champions” March 23.
Campus, Long Beach, News

Legal woes raise questions over LBCC Hall of Champions inductee

Cal State Long Beach faculty member Richard Foster will be inducted into the Long Beach City College “Hall of Champions” along with seven other former athletes, despite accusations from a former nationally-ranked swimmer he  represented in the past.

The award is meant to “recognize individuals and teams who have developed these skills and contributed to the outstanding accomplishments of the LBCC Athletic Program,” according to the college’s athletic’s website.

A former president of USA Water Polo and a national name in aquatic sports, Foster has been a faculty member of Cal State Long Beach for almost two decades, and will be teaching a sports ethics class next fall in the kinesiology department.

In 1970, Foster led the Vikings’ water polo team to a state championship and went on to compete at CSULB in the same sport. He would serve a number of high-profile positions in the aquatic sporting world, including the President of the National Governing Body for the Olympic Sport of Water Polo for over a decade.

However, some in the community have raised concerns about this honor. Dagny Knutson, a former student athlete he represented, said she believes Foster misled her into taking a subpar contract, according to court documents. A jury agreed, and awarded her over $600,000 in 2016.

In 2016, an Orange County Superior Court jury found that Foster had defrauded Knutson and breached his fiduciary responsibility to her by concealing a number of relationships between himself and USA Swimming. At the time, Foster was advising Knutson on her agreement with the team, creating a conflict of interest.

The decision to bring Foster back next semester “really made me question the university,” said Laurie Smith, a graduate of Cal State Long Beach and resident of the city who brought her concerns to both colleges. “I don’t want to minimize what [Knutson] went through, even if she doesn’t live in Long Beach.”

Jeff Bliss, executive director of media and digital news at Cal State Long Beach, could not comment on the decision to have Foster continue teaching classes while the decision is up in the air. He did, however, say that the university “is aware of what’s in the news.”

A motion for retrial, which was granted in October 2016 by the judge who oversaw the original trial, has vacated the initial ruling and decision, putting the case in limbo. Foster is seeking to reduce the damages down to around $21,000 from the original $600,000 the jury awarded. Knutson and her attorney, Robert Allard, have appealed the ruling, but no retrial date has been set.

“The court of appeal has not yet made a decision,” Allard said in an email. “We are highly confident that the appellate court will overrule the lower court’s new trial order and reinstate the jury’s verdict fully at which point no new trial will be necessary.  If by chance the appellate court agrees that a new trial is necessary, I would imagine that the new trial would occur by year’s end.”

In his six-page retrial decision, Judge Theodore R. Howard said there wasn’t enough evidence presented by the defense to show Knutson would have gotten a better deal with different representation.

Foster believes he has been treated unfairly.

“I’m a good guy,” he said. The professor and practicing attorney believes that in in today’s political climate, “Men are automatically proven guilty.”

In September 2016, the court ordered that a trust for Nancy Barrenechea-Foster, Rich Foster’s wife, would be put under a temporary restraining order. The account was frozen as a result. This came about after the couple sold real estate property for around $1.5 million, $300,000 of which was transferred to the trust, according to court documents submitted by Jon A. Atabek, another attorney representing Knutson.

Atabek and company believe this was an attempt to hide funds from the court, while Foster contends the $300,000 was a payment for a creditor, calling the accusation “baseless.”

The Court Case

An up-and-coming high school swimmer in 2010 with dreams of going to the Olympics, Knutson had a number of “full-ride” scholarship offers waiting for her post-graduation. According to court documents, these offers would include tuition and books, room and board, health insurance and athletic training care, as long as she remained on the team and followed the rules.

The scholarship would be upheld in the event of an injury or bad season.

The swimmer would eventually choose Auburn University in Alabama, with assistant coach Paul Vetter and the strong training staff being a major reason for the decision, according to court documents. But shortly after making her commitment, Vetter left his coaching position at the university. After her coaches’ departure, Knutson had to reexamine her options.

She was approached by Mark Schubert, then the U.S. national swim team director, who broke down what options the aspiring Olympian had after the departure of her coach. Besides staying at Auburn with a new and unknown coach, the swimmer had the right to transfer to another university under NCAA rules. However, these same rules would keep her out of competition for a year with the new team.

Alternatively, Knutson could leave Auburn and turn professional. She could train at a USA Swimming Center for Excellence in Fullerton and negotiate a contract with the U.S. national team with Schubert’s help, a major stepping stone on her path to being an Olympic athlete.

The swim director told Knutson that if the two moved to California and joined the team at Fullerton he was creating, the national governing body would cover their room and board, as well as tuition at a local college while training in Fullerton.

According to court documents, this was an oral arrangement made between the two parties, not a written contract, which would run through 2016. That August, Knutson moved out to California to start working with the coaching staff at the center.

According to Allard, Knutson and her family wanted a deal without any “performance requirements,” something Schubert had agreed upon. But when Schubert was removed for undisclosed reasons and Foster took over on Knutson’s behalf, Allard believes that his client was misled into accepting a deal with these exact requirements. The swimmer would have to remain among the top 25 worldwide rankings for swimmers, or the top three in the United States. Foster, on the other hand, didn’t see these requirements as a major issue.

“I wouldn’t say [Knutson] was worried about [the performance requirements],” Foster said. “All college athletes are worried about staying at the top…but these are reasonable requirements.”

Nancy Hogshead-Makar is a decorated Olympic swimmer, who was awarded the best all-around swimmer in 1984. She doesn’t believe the requirements were fair. In court documents provided by the plaintiff in the original trial, she described the standards in a different light.

“It is very rare that even the most elite athlete would be able to make that standard,” she was quoted as saying in the plaintiff’s opening brief.

Shortly after arriving in California, Knutson was forced to take a medical leave of absence to deal with an eating disorder. This caused her to miss competitions and drop from the rankings her contract had required, losing the deal and funding from the national governing board.

Foster previously represented Schubert in a wrongful termination lawsuit filed against him by Dia Rianda, a one-time Golden West College swim club coach in 2012. Rianda had made harassment complaints against a fellow swim coach, Bill Jewell, and believed she was fired for bringing up her concerns to Schubert. The case was eventually settled out of court.

Jewell later resigned from his position at Golden West after the release of an Orange County Register story detailing alleged inappropriate conduct between Jewell and athletes. The story mentioned a number of sexual comments Jewell allegedly made about swimmers on his team, some as young as 14 years old.

Foster believes Allard, Knutson’s attorney, has a personal axe to grind against him, and the two have taken a number of shots at each other through the media.

“It is absolutely personal,” Foster said.

Representatives from Long Beach City College did not respond to multiple requests for comment, while Dagny Knutson declined to speak for this story.

The ceremony inducting Foster and the others will be held Friday, March 23, at 6 p.m. in the Hall of Champions Gymnasium of the Liberal Arts Campus of Long Beach City College.

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